Four steps to designing a cloud storage services strategy

Resellers wondering how to respond to customer inquiries around cloud storage should consider four options: ignore it, become an agent, set up cloud services for customers or offer their own cloud storage services.

Service provider takeaway: For resellers interested in getting involved in cloud storage services, there are four main choices to consider. 

There are clouds on the horizon for storage resellers: cloud computing and, with it, cloud storage. I've recently spoken with reseller salespeople and engineers who are getting questions from their customers about the cloud initiative and are confused about how to respond. So what should their response -- and yours -- be?

The first step is to understand what cloud computing and cloud storage are all about, then develop a cloud storage services plan based on your organization's capabilities. It's very hard to define something that's still evolving; right now, it feels like everyone has their own definition for cloud services. Here's the distilled version of those definitions: Cloud computing is an attempt to leverage the Internet to deliver virtualized services to the end user's data center. This can be pretty broadly interpreted, from the somewhat simple "disk at the end of a wire somewhere" to an entire virtual data center accessible via a Web browser. The early movers in this space are those working with cloud storage -- and that's the cloud service segment that will attract the most initial attention.

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Cloud-based storage ranges from somewhat straightforward online storage approaches from the likes of Box.net, Amazon S3 or Xdrive (there are seemingly hundreds of these) to full-scale archive solutions like those from Nirvanix and iForem. Pricing for these solutions may be as low as 25 cents per gigabyte per month! These are all good, solid solutions, though they're clearly still maturing and suffering some growing pains. Amazon S3, for instance, went down for more than two hours in the middle of July. And Apple struggled its way through the transition from .Mac to MobileMe and is still having some problems with its iDisk service. Both companies provide a high-quality cloud service, but scaling the technology for the masses is not an easy task, and as we've seen with Apple, upgrades or transitions in services are rarely smooth.

As the cloud storage services market takes shape, you'll need to consider your choices around it. There's the obvious choice of selling hardware and software directly to the cloud storage providers. But beyond that, there are four options to weigh: You can ignore the potential competition from cloud storage services companies; you can be an agent; you can enable your customers to internally host a cloud; or you can create your own cloud service. (The recent problems with Amazon and Apple perfectly illustrate the benefits of reseller-provided cloud services; going one step further, if your customers host their own cloud, they can lower the risk of downtime.) Here's how those four options break down.

Ignore the problem

Cloud computing and cloud storage could just be heavy hype (like information lifecycle management , or ILM) and, if so, storage resellers would be better off ignoring the market and staying focused on what customers continue to demand right now: additional capacity in the data center, increasing power efficiency and increasing storage efficiency through virtualization. But ILM's move from hype to reality was and is still being strangled by the huge upfront cost and effort to get it implemented. The conditions for cloud storage services are the exact opposite. You can start slow and grow your use of it as your need and comfort level increases. The next five years will not see a dramatic switch to cloud storage, but there will be some and it will be measurable. It's a market that will be worth participating in if you can develop the skills needed to do so.

Become an agent

Many if not most of the cloud storage suppliers have some sort of agency fee you'll get for referring a customer. This is simple and easy, but really removes the reseller from the ongoing process. If you're looking for a long-term relationship with a customer and count on value-add as a key differentiator, it's best not to go down the agency road.

Set your customers up for private clouding

The option that storage resellers should be most comfortable with is enabling customers to create their own private cloud. A private storage cloud should appeal to both customers and you. Customers will like it because storage resources remain under their total control, and you'll like it because you can play an active role in the integration. On the downside, the upfront cost savings of a cloud service are lost with private clouding because customers have to purchase the hardware and software, but the long-term cost will be lower since they won't have to pay for the same storage over and over again on a monthly basis.

Another benefit of cloud storage that a private cloud would offer is the ability to create a distributed storage pool. Most cloud offerings have the ability to replicate to other locations within the cloud. This has obvious benefits for disaster recovery but also for content distribution. For example, if your customer wants to show training videos online, they could play those videos from the location that is closest to the user, improving overall end-user experience.

A key advantage to a private storage cloud is that your customers would remain in control of their security model. The cloud can stay behind their firewalls, for example, relieving concerns that an outside party would have access to intellectual property, branding and marketing details.

If you decide to go down the path to implementing private clouding for customers, there's a range of ways to go about it. For instance, software providers such as Bycast and Parascale will let you integrate your own hardware into a solution for your customers. And there are newer cloud-specific companies, such as Cleversafe, that offer the complete hardware/software bundle. Finally, there are the traditional disk archive vendors like Permabit and Copan; with this scenario, you have to integrate the traditional vendors' tools to get the multisite replication and content distribution capabilities of the cloud to work.

Create your own cloud storage offering

Not mutually exclusive from private clouding is the option of offering your own cloud storage services. The partners in the space are similar to those you'd work with for private clouds, except that you'd also need to host and store the data. Your own facilities may be adequate for hosting and storing if you have several sites within your organization and select a system that can replicate data, but for the most part if you decide to enter this space you're going to want to set up contracts with colocation facilities.

For storage resellers who want to offer their own cloud services, a key area to focus on is using cloud storage as an archive target. Archiving makes more sense than other storage services, such as the offerings from Xdrive and Box.net; that arena is already crowded and it's hard to add value and differentiate yourself. At the other end of the spectrum are the more advanced uses of the cloud, like virtual data centers (although that could be an interesting play for a reseller) and virtual application hosting, but those are still out of reach for most resellers and too new of a concept for many customers.

Archiving already has significant value for your customers; the need to retain information for very long periods of time is becoming more pressing to your customers. Leveraging a cloud service would allow them to archive data at a significantly lower cost. The ability to remove data from the network but still have access to it via cloud storage will have immediate value. And the ability to set specific retention policies around those data sets as well as possibly archiving it to WORM disk will have value.

But you don't want to take on your customers' headaches related to this data, so look for manufacturers that can provide power management, densely packed capacities and products that can scale large and fast. The traditional solutions in this space are very attractive, and the companies that make those products are typically more than willing to work with channel partners to set up the service.

If you do end up providing cloud storage services to customers, there may come a time when they want to de-cloud, for cost or political reasons. Using a traditional product, you could help them simply replicate to their internal data center on hardware similar to your own -- or that of another cloud storage service provider if their business was with another company. You'd be uniquely positioned to offer this service. You might lose a cloud service customer but gain a storage customer.

About the author
George Crump is president and founder of Storage Switzerland, an IT analyst firm focused on the storage and virtualization segments. With 25 years of experience designing storage solutions for data centers across the United States, he has seen the birth of such technologies as RAID, NAS and SAN. Prior to founding Storage Switzerland, George was chief technology officer at one of the nation's largest storage integrators, where he was in charge of technology testing, integration and product selection.


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